Basketball-London Lions win EuroCup thriller to make British history


Basketball - EuroCup Women - Final - London Lions v Besiktas - Copper Box Arena in London, Britain - April 10, 2024. Captain Temi Fagbenle lifts the trophy as she celebrates the 81-70 win with her team. REUTERS/Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) -London Lions women made history as they became the first British club to win a continental trophy after a thrilling battle with Turkey's Besiktas in the EuroCup final on Wednesday.

Trailing 75-68 from the first leg, the Lions were roared to victory by a thunderous crowd in the Copper Box Arena in London's Olympic Park, winning the second leg 81-70.

The Lions had already broken new ground by beating Umana Reyer Venice in March to become the first British club into a European final and completed a remarkable journey in style.

Leading 45-35 at halftime the Lions appeared to have taken control of the contest but Besiktas, backed by hundreds of travelling fans, clawed their way back with a gritty display.

As the tension levels rose the Besiktas coach became embroiled in raging arguments with the officials and had to be restrained before being asked to leave the court-side.

With the crowd whipped into a frenzy by a backdrop of thumping dance music, everything was on the line in the fourth quarter. Besiktas edged back to within the seven-point margin they were protecting before home-grown talent Holly Winterburn took the roof off with a superb three-pointer to extend the Lions lead to 79-70.

As the seconds ticked down Megan Gustafson made two free throws to extend the lead to 11 and her personal tally to 18 and when Besiktas's Dana Evans went for a desperate three-pointer and missed the joyous celebrations could start in earnest on a milestone evening for British basketball.

American-Brit Karlie Samuelson, formerly with the Los Angeles Sparks, was MVP with a game-high 19 points while captain Temi Fagbenle, who grew up in London before going to play in the WNBA in the United States, was inspirational with 17 points.

"We got it done, we got it done," an emotional Fagbenle said after lifting the trophy with Sweet Caroline blaring across the arena. "To get it done in London makes it even better, it's a dream come true."

Wisconsin-born centre Gustafson, an NCAA record-holder with a stellar WNBA career, said the victory ranked alongside any of her previous accolades.

"I mean, for my professional career, it's definitely probably the highest I've been able to get to. Obviously, playing in the WNBA has been great but I haven't won a championship there yet," the former Washington Mystics player told Reuters.

"This is the best overseas group I've ever been part of."

While the celebrations were set to go long into the night, the future is less clear as the club's American owners 777 Partners have announced they are cutting funding to the team.

That means they are unlikely to play in Europe next season and the team looks certain to break up with the big name players moving on.

"It's definitely up in the air," Gustafson said. "I mean, hopefully this changes their mind. I'm definitely keeping the door open for London just to see what happens.

"I hope they can get it together. Because this was an amazing experience."

The Lions have also won all 14 of their British women’s basketball league games this season and are on the brink of retaining the title.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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